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Nov. 13, 2017, 11 a.m.
Business Models

With video and audio, The Skimm pushes further into the daily routines of its 6 million readers

From a single morning email, it’s grown into a multi-product brand that its fans can interact with throughout the day. “We’ve always said email was a marketing tool for us. The product expansions are always about making it easier to live a smarter life.”

It’s been five years since the daily Skimm email made itself part of the wakeup routine of — now — more than 6 million largely female readers. (Yes, that subscriber number has quadrupled since we wrote about the company a little over two years ago.) And it’s a year and a half since theSkimm app asked users to pay for convenience — not necessarily content. Now, theSkimm (henceforth: The Skimm)’s cofounders, Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, have spread the company’s product reach even farther.

This fall, they launched several video series on Facebook Watch, and added an audio product to The Skimm’s paid app in a greater quest to get into readers’ daily routines. Advertisers have taken note: The Skimm’s affiliate advertising has grown nearly 400 percent in six months, Weisberg and Zakin said.

“A lot of companies have rushed to do video to create a ton of content. We wanted to make sure, before we went into video, that we had a solidified audience,” Weisberg told me, noting that she and Zakin got “vocational training” for video in their past jobs as NBC News producers. Audio is a natural extension for their audiences as well: “When they’re driving or commuting to work, our text-based product isn’t always compatible with those routines. Audio fits.”

A day in the life of a Skimm subscriber, for example, might start, at 6 a.m., with the Daily Skimm email that provides a run-through of current events (and subscriber birthdays and advertisements). As the subscriber heads to work, she can listen to the Skimm Notes audio on The Skimm’s app, which provides context on topics like ISIS, the opioid crisis, and WikiLeaks. Scrolling through Facebook at work, she might come across videos explaining President Trump’s trip to Asia in chalk illustrations or a Skimm’torial clip about “adulting” (a.k.a. formatting resumes, drinking wine, cleaning a microwave). There’s also Sip ‘n Skimm, which features Zakin and Weisberg interviewing newsmakers like Justin Trudeau on labor issues, Paul Ryan on the Republican tax reform plan for tax reform, and Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush on growing up with two U.S. presidents for relatives.

(Over the summer they also tested Tasty-esque cooking videos–slash–current events explainers, e.g. “Here’s why the North Dakota Access Pipeline is kinda like chocolate chip pancakes.” The video is slightly mesmerizing.)

In the evening, the subscriber might take in one of The Skimm’s two Facebook Watch series: Skimm’d With, offering the view of celebrities in bubble baths explaining current issues (Hank Azaria debriefed viewers on bitcoin through the voices of the Simpsons; other actors in tubs explain healthcare, climate change, and more), and Get Off the Couch, an entrepreneurship competition that pays homage to Zakin and Weisberg building The Skimm as a startup from their own couch.

For a company that originally centered around one daily email, it’s a lot of products.

“We’re very careful about how we expand the brand and our voice. One of the best pieces of advice early on was not to do that too fast, or to try to do it in too many verticals,” Zakin said. “When you do that, you have to think about the audience and the best way to reach them. Email is not just a default strategy.”

“As we go more and more to video, content-licensing opportunities have emerged,” Weisberg said.

As The Skimm spreads its reach, though, it is still facing criticism for its lighthearted tone and nonchalant translation of worldly current events into Skimm-speak. For example, in the email newsletter from May 17 of this year, the release of Chelsea Manning from military prison was compared to “when your friend asks what time you can get drinks after work… ‘I’ll be free earlier than expected.'” In an Instagram Story from November 9, The Skimm quizzed followers on the Philippines’ president’s ties to “death squads” by having them guess if President Duterte’s nickname is “The Prosecutor” or “Duterte Harry,” among other questions, Jezebel reported. Slate writer Christina Cauterucci imagined The Skimm’s tone “if Politico’s Playbook were translated by a chatbot that learned the English language from The Simple Life, Daily Mail headlines, and Nick Jr.” She wrote:

Its patronizing tone assumes that female news consumers tune out anything of import if it’s not processed through verbal eye-rolls. The very existence of such a service, especially one marketed specifically to women, is insulting. But it’s also scary as hell, because millions of people subscribe to this thing. More than 1 million people open the newsletter every weekday. That’s the equivalent of the entire state of New Hampshire getting its news, on purpose, from a source that sells itself with the following promo copy: “There’s a lot of stuff in the world. It’s confusing.”

Zakin and Weisberg have responded to some of the criticism, explaining to Cosmopolitan in a profile this summer:

After the Chelsea Manning PR crisis this year, curious why they were suddenly getting negative press, Danielle and Carly did a “total analytics deep dive.” They found that 90 percent of the negative posts came from “people who worked in media and produced things that we might read, but the majority of our audience does not,” Carly says, adding more ice to her wine. “And the people that were defending us, over 95 percent of them, if not more, were the people we’re actually reaching.”

Continuing to draw substantial growth in subscribers (the numbers ballooned from 3.5 million in 2016 to 6 million this year), The Skimm still seems to be resonating with its audience, who can now pay for some of its material. The Skimm’s first product expansion incorporated user revenue, asking $2.99 per month for a synced calendar of upcoming events in the app. The Skimm Notes audio product is now housed within the app as well. Some recent studies have suggested that younger audiences are increasingly comfortable paying for news, and The Skimm targets millennials with disposable income. Are they opening their wallets?

“We all pay for things that add efficiency to our day,” Zakin said. “Our strategy has been to show up where our audience is…Eighty-six percent of our audience is commuting regularly. Eighty-two percent listen [to some sort of content] on their morning commute and 74 percent listen on their evening commute. When we thought about that, we knew we had to step into the routine.” With the app, meanwhile, “they aren’t just paying for content, they’re paying for the convenience of us telling them [the news].”

The cofounders invested energy in the 2016 presidential election, getting more than 110,000 people registered to vote, and this year transitioned to an initiative to help subscribers cross off items on their “bucket lists.” Their efforts are helped by their 27,000-strong Skimmbassador grassroots-marketing community, which one can only join by getting 10 people to sign up for The Skimm’s email. (Other news organizations have also started referral-based marketing campaigns. And full disclosure: I am a Skimmbassador.)

Up next? The 2018 midterms.

“We’re always trying to help our audience be a step ahead in what they know,” Zakin said. “We’ve always said email was a marketing tool for us. The product expansions are always about making it easier to live a smarter life.”

POSTED     Nov. 13, 2017, 11 a.m.
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